We had all crammed around this huge, circular table in the middle of the university cafeteria. I can't remember now how many of us there were, how many girls, how many boys. All I knew was as soon as we all were seated, people's thumbs began popping up.
I certainly was. I'd never seen anything like it. One by one, my friends around the lunch table began flicking up their thumbs, fists resting on the table, until I was the only one left. My confusion must have shown on my face, because one of them finally explained.
"The last person without their thumb raised has to say the blessing."
I shrugged my shoulders and bowed my head before a close friend of mine saw what was happening. He intervened, and you might think it's silly -- I certainly did -- but I look back and am grateful, because I know you have to pick and choose your battles, and that one? In front of people I loved then and love now, despite our different opinions on certain matters of theology? It wasn't worth fighting.
That singular event sticks out so strongly in my mind because even in my fairly conservative upbringing and my very conservative evangelical high school, I was allowed to speak publicly about my faith. I was encouraged to share my testimony, to lead my friends in prayer, to teach lessons on Christ crucified. And I was never told, in a school setting anyway, that to do so in front of my male counterparts would have been inappropriate or sinful. Instead, that kind of leadership was encouraged and lauded and appreciated, at least as far as I could tell.
At my university, things were a little different. We had chapel every day conducted by male professors and students. There was no praise band or team, so even the singing was led entirely by men. And you know? It never bothered me. I was raised in a conservative church setting, and I understood. I knew my place. I knew the traditions and the decisions, and it didn't bother me too much that chapel services at my school were conducted by my male peers and teachers. It became so normal, so typical, that it never occurred to me we could do something different.
Until the autumn of my senior year.
The precious elderly man who scheduled our chapel speakers took me aside one day after the morning service. He called me by name, which while not unusual for a school our university's size, still took me by surprise. I hadn't thought he'd known I'd existed, and besides: I'd begun to make a name for myself on the school paper, and the response from school officials had been less than glowing. I didn't exactly command their respect.
But this precious man took me aside, told me he'd loved my writing, and he'd wondered if I'd be willing to serve as chapel speaker the following week during a special Veteran's Day service.
If you're reading this and didn't go to my university or weren't raised in church or in the South, all of this might sound absolutely ludicrous to you. You might think I'm silly for putting up with certain attitudes and traditions for so long. You might wonder why I keep believing, keep acting, keep hoping for change.
Because of men like that.
Here's the thing: my dad wasn't in the military. Neither of my grandfathers fought in battle. My own brother is a self-described pacifist. I was completely unqualified to speak in a chapel service dedicated to our nation's veterans.
And I know that changing the status quo was probably the furthest thing from this elderly gentleman's mind. I'm almost positive, nearly 10 years later, that his thought process was nothing more than: Annie's a good writer. I'd love to see what she'd come up with for Veteran's Day.
That's what makes it so incredibly lovely.
He wasn't trying to make some grand change in the system. He wasn't trying to upset the balance of the traditions our university -- our faith -- held so close. He wasn't trying to do any of that.
He just thought I'd do a good job, and it didn't matter that I was a girl.
The following Thursday, I was the chapel speaker. Sure, they had to say a closing prayer before introducing me, but still. I was the chapel speaker because someone thought I was good enough. Someone took a chance, and it made a difference, probably not to anyone else -- I don't think there's been a female chapel speaker since -- but it certainly did to me.
I heard through my alma mater grapevine that Mr. Chandler, this sweet man who paid attention and offered me a chance no one else had, passed away on Friday. And my heart broke more than I thought it would.
Mr. Chandler went to my grandmother's church in Alabama, and every time I'd visit her, he'd seek me out. My grandmother told me Mr. Chandler was always asking about me, how I was doing, what I was up to.
And to be honest, I have no idea why. I don't know what he saw in me that made him care so much.
My senior year at Faulkner was good but hard. Making a name for myself on the paper meant taking stands for things I thought were important. And anybody knows that stand-taking -- no matter how small -- produces consequences. The ones I faced weren't always fun, were sometimes hurtful. I often felt misunderstood, like maybe I needed to be quiet, respectful, submissive.
But Mr. Chandler -- who I'm confident would probably have disagreed with me on the same matters of theology other university staff did -- thought I was worthy of respect and attention.
Isn't that what church is about? Isn't that what faith is about?
There's so much to disagree over, I know. But there's so much more to agree about. There's so much more we can do when we listen and when we love.
Common ground exists more places than we realize.
And I love that this precious man from a previous generation cared enough about me as a person to offer me an opportunity that to you, I'm sure, seems small. But to me, it was huge. It made a difference, and when I got word of Mr. Chandler's death this past Friday, I cried a little. He loved me and my gifts, and he couldn't wait to see how God would use them... and my girl-ness? My female-ness? Well, I don't know, but it just didn't seem to matter that much to him.
I think he knew we had more in common than not.